Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Using the toilet

Self-cleaning automatic toilet stall in Colmar

Sometimes finding a toilet is no easy matter in Europe. And they don't say "bathroom" here, the euphemism we have adopted in North America. In France, the bathroom (salle de bain) is actually the room with the bathtub in it. If you're in a private home, the bathroom may or may not also house the toilet. In our apartment, we're lucky enough to have both a salle de bain and a salle d'eau (water room, when translated to English). I guess this is the French euphemism for "room with the toilet". In many public areas in Europe, you have to spot the sign for WC (stands for Water Closet), the almost international symbol for "toilet" that must have moved east from Great Britain.

The cost to use a public toilet varies from free, which is unusual, to the most expensive one we used at the Berlin Zoo bahnhof (train station) at 1.10 € (about $1.65). In some places men can choose to use the pissoir for a cheaper price. (I call discrimination!) We have found free public toilets at the Coliseum in Rome, in some of the parks and tourist areas in Strasbourg, and in Barr, home of the famous (to us, anyway) wine festival. In mid-range on the toilet expense scale are the "on your honour" toilets and the turnstile-type toilet areas, which generally cost between 0.50 and 0.80 € ($0.75 - $1.20). The coin-operated turnstiles don't give back change, so if you have to go badly enough and the attendant isn't there, you could lose some money. Sometimes this service is contracted out, and we have noticed a company called McClean (the expensive one in Berlin) at other places. (If you click on the link, watch the website load the first time - it's cute!)

If you want to be really rude, you can use an "on your honour" public toilet for free as well. Basically, these are public toilets that have on-site caretakers, and these toilet rooms are always sparkling clean. When you walk in, there is often an anteroom or foyer where the caretaker hangs out, and you will see a saucer with a few coins in it sitting conspicuously on a counter. The caretaker, most likely a woman, will greet you as you go in, and watch (or listen) carefully to see (or hear) that you drop a coin, usually in the range of 0.20 to 0.50 €, in the saucer on your way out. When she hears the familiar clink in the saucer, you are merrily wished on your way. Being the polite person that I am, I would never want to test the waters by leaving without paying, but I imagine that instead of a friendly good-bye, you might be treated to an evil glare.

We were treated to an example of this when we stopped at a Belgian WC in a service station on our last trip to Europe. Mark and Cameron went into the men's room together, and Mark dropped a coin into the dish on his way in, but the very unfriendly-looking woman who managed the WC didn't see him do it. On his way out, when he "forgot" to leave a coin, she followed, berating him all the way. If she had been speaking French, he might have tried to talk with her, but since she was speaking Flemish (we think), he didn't stand a chance. We just played dumb tourists and walked out, feeling badly that she thought we were trying to cheat her. We learned a lesson from this, though: always pay on your way out.

Send us an email! christinateskey @ or mvieweg @

See the pictures:

Friday, February 22, 2008

Learning to speak French

I'm not a natural linguist, and because of this, learning to speak French is one of the hardest things I've ever done. Some lucky people can go out, mingle with the locals for a night or two, and pick up enough of the language to apply for a job as a waiter the following week. Then there's me, on the other end of the language learning scale: I have to see it, hear it and say it several times before I remember how to use it in conversation.

I studied French in a desultory manner for the first four months, but by Christmas time I finally settled into a structure that includes a variety of experiences.

They are: (links provided if you want to learn some French)
  • Reading kids' books (short chapter books for kids about 8 - 9 years old are great)
  • Listening to French language teaching podcasts (I know, the guy's Irish, but he has some great conversations with Amèlie, a native French speaker)
  • Practicing French over the internet with free language teaching tools
  • Note: I see they're not free anymore -- darn!
  • Listening to French TV and news podcasts on the internet
  • Interacting with people "on the street"
  • Going to school for two-week sessions
  • Establishing a "French hour" at home each day
  • Copying down important words and phrases on flash cards and reviewing them regularly
I have certainly confused people with my feeble attempts at French. Before I went to school the second time, I registered over the internet but hadn't heard back from them for a while. Foolishly, I decided to go in person to the school to see what was up. The only phrase I memorized for the occasion was, "I registered for the course on Monday - is it ok?" Armed with this snippet of conversation, I boldly went to the office on the first floor of the school... only to find out that the office had moved to the third floor, after I was reduced to saying, "École Français?" In the third floor office, I received a blank look from the woman at the desk after spouting my prepared statement. Finally the light dawned for her when I said, "La classe lundi?" (The class on Monday?) and gave her my name. (After I had been in class for a week I learned that I had been telling the office people that I had videotaped (enregistre), not that I had registered for the class.) The nice woman at the office flipped through a stack of registration papers the size of a small mountain before she came to mine.

She picked up the phone, and I understood that she was sending me down to "a colleague", which turned out to be an interview with the director of the school. The director asked me some questions, which I answered in very bad, halting French, asked me some other questions which I didn't understand at all, and then reverted to English (which, unlike my French, was pretty darn good.) She told me in no uncertain terms that my French was very bad. She told me that I would never learn French properly if I didn't stay at school longer, that two weeks here and there was not enough. When she was finished with me, I left wondering why she felt obligated to tell me all those things. Was this punishment for telling everyone in the building that I had videotaped? Had word traveled that fast? I left the school thinking, "This is not a good French day." Looking back, I'm still not sure why she had that little conversation with me. The class was already scheduled, I was registered, and we were good to go. Perhaps she thought to encourage me to register for more sessions -- but if that's the case, she needs a little more work on her selling pitch!

Although apprehensive, all was good again when I went to my class on the following Monday. There I was in the middle of the pack -- far better at grammar than some, but about average in terms of comprehension and speaking. We picked up where I had left off in October, and it was a very good experience. Taking a French class in France certainly forces you to listen to your classmates very carefully, as they speak French with various accents, including German, Italian, Spanish, and Brazilian Portuguese (that was just the last class!) I was very happy to find that my oral comprehension had improved immensely. Whereas the first time I understood about half of what the instructor said, this time my comprehension was almost perfect. I remember coming home one day and proudly telling Mark, "I understood everything the instructor said today except for two sentences!"

It has occurred to me several times in the past few months that people think I am either somewhat deaf or just not very smart. This actually makes me feel pretty good, because it represents a huge leap for me in my acquisition of the French language. That's because when we first came here and people spoke French to me, I would immediately break down and mumble with chagrin, "Sorry, I don't speak French." Now, however, I give it a try.

"Pardon?" I say, in an effort to buy some time to either formulate the answer in my head or get them to repeat what they said. I find it works much better than hesitating before you speak. When I went to make the appointment to get my hair done, and they asked me whether I would like the morning or the afternoon, it wasn't the French language that was the issue. I was just busy thinking what time would work best for the family. I finally decided that it didn't really matter and said, "Matin" (morning), but by that time I'd been pegged. The guy pencilled me in to the book, then turned to me (I was standing right in front of him) and yelled, "Dix heures!" (10 o'clock) while flashing his 10 fingers at me. I'm still wondering if he thinks I'm a little deaf or just not very smart. : )

Before we came to France -- back in the homeland -- when people asked me if I spoke French, I would say, "Un petit peu" (a little bit). It wasn't until we arrived in France that I realized how little that bit really was! After almost six months here, I usually have good French days; I understand most of what they tell me at the library; I can tell the courier guy that I will come downstairs and sign for a parcel; I can go grocery shopping and cash in my points; and I can go to a restaurant and order wine and green beans. Now when someone asks me if I speak French, I say with confidence, "Un peu"!

Contact us: christinateskey @ or mvieweg @

Sunday, February 17, 2008

What colour is your house?

Scaffolding went up around our building about two weeks ago, but we've only seen the workers for a few odd days. It's a bit disconcerting to live in an apartment with no curtains on the street-side windows and men repairing stucco outside on the fourth floor at 8:30 a.m. It reminds me of the time we built the addition on the house at Tchesinkut Lake. Sleeping on a mattress in the middle of the living room, we often had to scramble to get dressed at 7:00 a.m. when Fred Carpenter, the carpenter, and several of his eight sons cheerfully arrived to start their day. But I digress.... For as long as we've known it, our Strasbourg apartment has been a washed-out orange colour, but apparently it's destined to be bright yellow.

Europeans aren't as reticent as we North Americans about painting buildings with bright hues. And just like a little kid, I'm always thrilled by the jeweled colours of the houses that we have seen as we have travelled around Europe, especially France and Germany. Last week I was in building-picture-taking heaven when we visited Colmar, a small city south of Strasbourg about 30 minutes by train.

Mark had gone to the train station the day before intending to buy tickets for St. Dié, a village in the Vosges mountains. However, no one at the train station really knew St. Dié, and everyone there agreed that Colmar was a very good place to visit, so Mark caved in to his insecurities about St. Dié (does it have two train stations or one? and what if we end up getting dumped off the train in the middle of nowhere?) and came home with tickets for Colmar. (But we're still going to do St. Dié!)

Initially somewhat disappointed, we were happily surprised with Colmar and its tourist experience. The Alsatian half-timbered houses that we see in Petite France in Strasbourg are numerous in Colmar, and even more brightly coloured. Most of their important buildings are signed in French, German, and English, which always makes it more meaningful (literally!) for us. (Even though our French is getting better, it's amazing what little nuances -- and sometimes big meanings! -- you miss when you're reading something that's not in your first language). And in Colmar, unlike most of the other trilingual signage we have seen, the English and German sections were equally as long as the French, signifying that we were getting the full story and not just a brief summary.

At the beginning of our visit, Mark chuckled when he got off the train because he'd overheard a German couple talk about Colmar's wonderful water tower. At the end of the visit, and on our way back to catch the train home, we made a slight detour and found out that the water tower is indeed impressive. The Germans probably knew about it because the tower was built in 1870 during a time that Germany had annexed Alsace. Although old, it was in use as late as 1984. Now I think it just sits there and looks impressive, but not to the kids who, after three hours of wandering around, were tired and just wanted to get back home.

On the way back home we snagged our own compartment in the train, which made for a very relaxing trip back. I had to shake myself out of picture-taking mode, so I tried not to look out the window at all of the colourful houses flashing by.

Even though the trip to Colmar provided some good examples of Alsatian design, I don't think I'll stop taking pictures of the buildings here. After almost six months of living in Strasbourg, I still marvel at the architecture and decoration of the old buildings, which causes me to pause and snap pictures on almost every walk. My family gets tired of waiting for me, but they always appreciate the "slide show" when we get back home.

More pictures at Flickr:

Read the kids' blog:

Contact us: christinateskey @ or mvieweg @

Thursday, February 14, 2008

La jour de la Saint-Valentin

Happy St. Valentine's Day!

Mark made a detour this morning after getting our traditional breakfast baguette, and he arrived home with roses. The French love flowers at any time, but he said that the flower shop was doing a booming business even at 9 a.m. He thoughtfully arranged them in one of the apartment's Alsatian pottery jugs, which made for a pretty picture.

Although I haven't seen much evidence of stores gearing up for St. Valentine's Day, it may be because I haven't been doing a lot of shopping lately. I did snap a picture of a wonderful shop window in Colmar, however, when we visited there last week (please ignore the nasty glare on the picture!). Colmar has some beautiful buildings about which I will post later.

I hope you have a great day with your loved ones!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Lessons from Homeschooling

We've struggled this year with exactly how to "run" our home school. When we left Canada, I had a vision of all these wonderful projects that we could do together. The kids would be engaged and interested, pushing the learning agenda themselves, sometimes working so late that I would have to demand they put their school work away and go to bed. As usual, though, reality is different from the vision.

Even regular school can be boring at times -- heck, regular school is probably boring a lot of the time for many kids. But at least there you can hang out with your friends and maybe even get into a little trouble once in a while. The lack of interesting things to do is more than made up for by the lack of interesting people to be with. In many cases, the actual work is secondary. Contrast that with home schooling; there's you, the work, and your mother, also known as "the teacher". If you're lucky, "the teacher" has figured out a way to combine the courses so you can work with your brother or sister, who you are currently mad at because he/she has just ___________ your _____________ . (fill in the blanks with your own pet peeve)

We've run the gamut from almost no structure -- when Mark and I would leave the hotel room in search of an apartment and say to the kids on the way out, "Work on your math!" -- to a fairly strict schedule that has the kids finished by 2 p.m. each school day (theoretically).

Amidst all the traveling that we did between September and November, we managed to sneak in a bit of school work. We made it a point to not take any school books with us when we traveled. By the middle of November, however, we began to realize that we needed a bit more regular structure. We started by trying to let the kids schedule their own time. I would lay out 20 one-hour assignments that the kids needed to do each week, and they would organize their schedules to get them done. As time went on, however, we had to lay out more and more "rules", mostly around the use of our two laptop computers:

1. School work and the adults' work gets priority for the computers.
2. The computers can only be used for school work between the hours of 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.
3. Adults get computer time during the even-numbered hours; kids get the odd-numbered hours.
4. If work isn't completed by Saturday night, school starts Sunday morning at 9 a.m. and continues without breaks (except for a 10-minute break in every hour) until the work is done.
5. And so on...

Far from allowing the kids more freedom, it actually ended up imposing more restrictions on all of us. Looking back, I see that I was decidedly optimistic but crazy to think that it would work.

Eventually we got down to the nitty-gritty: how much work needs to be completed by the end of the year, and how much time we have left to do it. The kids scheduled their 20 one-hour blocks of work (between the hours of 9 .m. and 2 p.m.) in a way that suited them.

Some (ok, most!) days we don't get started by 9 a.m. Then we work after 2 p.m. The goal is to get finished early enough in the afternoon that we have time to go out and explore the city, or do other fun things.

What is interesting to me is the process that we have been through. That order and structure was imposed on them was actually the kids' choice. However, it suits me, too. It has been much better to have a set schedule so that the kids know they will be finished at a certain time each day.

We have had our good days -- like the bridge building project that both the kids took on -- when the home schooling approaches my vision, but it has been a lot of hard work for all of us. We are trying to ensure that the kids achieve the learning outcomes for their grades and have the necessary skills to do well in their next school year. It is an experience that we'll never forget. Through home schooling the kids have produced a blog, painted beautiful watercolours, learned goal-setting and developed some amazing computer skills, among many other things.

As wonderful an opportunity as a year of home schooling can be, I think we'll all breathe a sigh of relief when things are back to normal next year and the kids head off to a "real" school.

How's the winter going for you? write us: christinateskey @ or mvieweg @

See our pics:

See the kids' beautiful watercolours and read some of their writing:

Friday, February 8, 2008

Musée Alsacien and Musée Historique

Last Sunday (free museum day in France) we made it to two museums; or Mark and I did, as we allowed the kids to "escape" after the first one. The Alsatian Museum is contained within three adjoining historic houses along the Ill River in Strasbourg, and the artifacts are spread throughout many rooms. Mark and I were lagging behind, snapping pics and really delving into the history of Alsace, when Meghan said to me, "You know, I'm interested in this to a point." Her point being, of course, that we were taking far too long and had moved far past her point of interest. After that, the kids went ahead of us and had fun exploring the museum on their own as we all followed the arrows through the maze of rooms.

After leaving the Alsatian Museum, Mark and I decided to take a brief look at the nearby Musée Historique, which details the history of the city of Strasbourg. We thought it would be just a quick visit, mostly because I was hungry (it was lunch time), and partly because we had sent the kids home ahead of us. Two hours later, having rushed through the last two hundred years of history, and ravenous (well, me anyway!), we stumbled out into the crisp winter afternoon sunlight. I was very impressed with the museum and felt that we couldn't just rush through it. Not only was the admission free that day, but we were also given free (English!) audio guides and a place to safely lock our coats during the visit, little perks that encouraged us to stay longer than we had intended. True to French form, though, getting in wasn't totally straightforward: after receiving our free entrance tickets, we were each handed a token which had to be deposited in a turnstyle around the corner to allow us into the museum. Why let one system suffice when two or more can be created to do the same thing? : )

On the way home we bought petit pain chocolat, beignets choco (like jelly doughnuts, but stuffed with chocolate creme), rum and raisin macaroons, and bretzel salé, the salted dough pretzels that are popular here. Although starving, I managed to keep it down to one bretzel salé, which I happily munched as we walked home in the sun.

We really enjoyed both of the museums and have plans to go back to the Musée Historique, either with guests or on our own. Perhaps it's good that my stomach ruled the afternoon, because at least part of the museum will be fresh for us.

Contact us: christinateskey @ or mvieweg @

Lots more pics at Flickr pictures

Monday, February 4, 2008

Freiburg for Riverdance

We made another trip last week, this time to Freiburg, Germany, and it felt good to be back on the road. We really enjoy train travel, and we haven't really done any since we returned from Italy. (And no, the 11-minute trip to Kehl to buy the train tickets doesn't count!)

When we booked the tickets, we asked about a Bahn card, which entitles you to discounts on all of your German train tickets. We're still not sure if they're only available to German citizens or anyone with a European address. The ticket man, who has come to know our story fairly well, asked if we had a Strasbourg address when we told him where we are living. We were able to get the card, but we think it might be due to the special relationship that Strasbourg has with Germany, Strasbourg being so close the border.

The train trip was short and fairly uneventful. It was the first time that we have used second-class tickets, although not the first time we've been in a second class car, as some trains only have second class. It was not necessarily our choice to travel first class at the beginning of the trip (but it's kinda nice!); however, our Eurail passes could only be purchased for first class. It didn't make much of a difference to us financially when we purchased the Eurail passes last June, as both Mark and I were still working. However, now that we're relying on our savings to buy our tickets, we can only justify first class if it's not much more expensive than second. Most European trains are fairly comfortable, so it doesn't really make sense to splurge for first class, especially on the short runs.

We did splurge, however, on the hotel, and I was in for a surprise when we got there. I discovered that I don't really like expensive, sanitized, western-style hotels anymore. The environment in the room is very sterile, and you don't get any sense of the culture. Sitting in that hotel in Freiburg, Germany, I could have been in any city in Canada or the US, except for the fact that I couldn't understand the TV channels (ok , so I could understand BBC World News!) Prior to this we have rented private furnished apartments, and even though I have often resented hoofing it through an unknown city looking for the apartment after a long train ride, the exercise really does give you an idea of the layout and culture of the place. Contrast that to our arrival in Freiburg , where we got off the train, looked out at the city and spotted our hotel, which was a two-minute walk from the train station. By the time we got to the hotel room, I felt disoriented. Luckily Mark and Cameron took off back to the train station, where they located a transit map, figured out how to get to the arena for the concert that night, and bought us tram/train tickets.

The Riverdance performance was pretty amazing. We've seen it on DVD before, so the element of surprise was gone, but it is absolutely awesome to hear the Irish step dancing in person. The arena just thunders with the impeccably timed sound of the many performing feet. I have a thing for loud rhythmic sounds, so the Celtic drumming also gives me a thrill (must be the Irish in me). At the end of the concert, we missed the train by about 10 minutes, and rather than waiting in the cold and dark station for the next one (about 45 minutes), we took a cab back to the hotel. It's lucky that we have Mark's German to fall back on - and lucky that he remembered the phone number to call - as I'm not sure we would have managed that one in English!

Mark and I got up early the next morning and left the kids in the hotel so that we could go out and explore the city centre. Freiburg has an amazing cathedral, one to rival Strasbourg's. Mark read that you have to climb 328 steps to reach the platform - surprisingly, almost the exact number of steps to Strasbourg's cathedral platform. We chose not to climb it but to save that little trek to do with kids some other time (by this time we'd already decided that we would come back). Another interesting feature of Freiburg is the gutters filled with running water. Legend has it that if you accidentally step into a gutter you will marry someone from Freiburg. Since I'm already married and the kids are far too young to wait around in Europe for marriage, we kept everyone well away from them! (This was not hard since the kids were lollygagging back at the hotel).

The trams are also amazing, another feature that Freiburg has in common with Strasbourg. They are narrower than Strasbourg's, and have a funkier look. Most are painted wild colours (no two the same). In order to ride the train to the concert the evening before, we had purchased 24-hour tickets, so after we gathered up the kids and checked out of the hotel, we hopped the tram and did a complete circuit of the city on two different tram lines. Admittedly, once you get out of the city centre, the view becomes a little more modern, plain and less interesting, but it was still fun to watch the city go by and relax at the same time.

After doing a bit of shopping in the underground boutiques at the train station (Meghan is still struggling to find things on which to spend her Christmas money), we hopped the train back to Strasbourg. Although brief, we all enjoyed it and are looking forward to our return later in the spring.

Contact us: mvieweg @ or christinateskey @

See the pics:

Feel free to leave comments on the blog! If you've tried before and are wondering why it didn't show up, it's because I have comment moderation turned on. This means that your comment comes to me for approval before it gets posted on the blog. The only reason I've done this is to keep spammers from making nasty comments or leaving less-than-desirable links in the comments. Don't let it stop you!